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Culture

GAY ORTHODOX JEWS VS THE WORLD

by viceuk
11 May 2010, 12:24pm

"Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination." States The Torah, which, like most religious tracts, isn't so big on gay relationships. Promising that gay people, "shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them", is probably one of the few things Jews and Muslims and Christians could bond over. Which is why Eyes Wide Open is pissing people off.

Although the death penalty hasn't been practiced in Judaism since Jesus showed up, homosexuality is more or less viewed as a sort of mental illness that can possibly be cured through therapy and rehabilitation. This has led to a scattering of underground gay and lesbian groups within the community, including my favourite, The Orthodykes. Israeli director Haim Tabakman has made Eyes Wide Open, a fantastic film about a Jerusalem father of four who falls for a 19-year-old male student. Eventually the community finds out - with homophobic results. It's a brilliant, tense drama. I spoke to Haim about making the film.

Vice: What sort of reactions were you getting from people when you first started on the film?
Haim:
Different ones. In the more highbrow, intellectual parts, it was considered to be almost too easy, voyeuristic or exploitative. And of course I got religious people I knew telling me I shouldn't deal with it. Like, "Why should you take money from the government to deal with such a scummy issue?" So it was a great challenge, a great task to go between the lines. I really wanted to make something meaningful. The hero of my film is torn apart because he's totally devoted to religion - the only thing is, there's a bug in the system as the Jewish religion doesn't acknowledge that men might have an inclination to sleep with other men.

Were there cast or crew people who wouldn't work on the film because of the subject matter?
I had problems with actors who didn't want to appear in the film, but I feel a little blessed by this actually. In Israel they don't have a large quantity of quality actors, and the fact that a lot of the usual actors said no because of the nature of the project, it made me search deeper and experiment more with the casting. It's nice to work with people who have a hunger.

I heard you had some help from religious people who wanted to remain anonymous.
Yeah, although they were people who lead double lives. One of them isn't really religious but appears to be so to keep up appearances. One is a gay Orthodox guy who leads a double life. And there were people who used to be in that community but had left. Nobody directly inside the system would help me.

Is there a big fear of going against the community?
Yeah, because it would be problematic. None of the people who helped me wanted to be credited. It's just trouble for them.

Did you have any problems filming out in the streets, with the Orthodox community?
Yeah. Most of the film is shot either in Jaffa or the less religious parts of Jerusalem. But for the parts where we did film in the more Orthodox neighbourhoods, we adopted a more documentary style of shooting. We had to be very fast. We came across some kind of opposition - they threw rocks at our car and people told us to go away. But they have a problem with any shooting there, not just because it was this subject.

Is it physically dangerous to be out as a gay person in that community?
It becomes dangerous only when you become stubborn. First they might speak to you, but if you persist in your stubbornness, then it can get violent. Some of them do it and lead secret lives and then there are people like the ones in my story, who want to battle against their secret lives. But basically it's a society that tries to keep their own, and they have their legitimacy to do it, they go by the holy book, it's written in the text very clearly: if you sleep with another man you'll be stoned to death. Although there are almost funny ways in which people try to interpret this sentence - what is sleeping with another man? Some Orthodox people say if you don't cum, it's not really sleeping with another man.

Ha. Like Bill Clinton saying a blowjob isn't sex.
Yeah, exactly. Some of them say if you don't perform anal sex, it's ok. It's a kind of comic tragedy.

How controversial was the film in Israel?
Not very, because Orthodox people don't go to the cinema. But now it's on DVD, and can be downloaded online, there's a lot more discussion about it. The irony is that there are a lot of computers in the Orthodox community. They can't have televisions because they were considered, from the beginning, as the bearer of sin, whereas computers were just working instruments. Nobody foresaw the potential of the internet. If only they knew. So they're very curious about stories about themselves, I get more responses now. But also, the film doesn't have an obvious villain. I wanted to communicate that everybody has their reason. That's what's so difficult about life. I tried to show, not to judge.

Eyes Wide Open opens in UK cinemas this Friday. More details here. There's a preview screening of the film tonight at the Apollo Cinema at Piccadilly, followed by a Q&A with the director.

ALEX GODFREY